Deena Bishop spent Wednesday afternoon at Romig Middle School. She passed out pencils and candy to eighth graders in the cafeteria. It was finals week for the students — and one of Bishop’s final weeks as superintendent.
After six years in the role, she had advice for her replacement, Jharrett Bryantt.
“With all the noise in the world right now, put your heart and your mind to young people,” she said.
Bishop faced some of that noise on social media during her time as superintendent, especially during the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Looking back, it was a difficult time,” she said. “I’m sad that my friends and family saw mean things. I happen to sit in a position that has a lot of responsibility and leadership, and that was part of that growth.”
She said watching families struggle with remote learning and child care was difficult. She was also worried about kids’ mental health. That’s why she fought to bring kids back in person as soon as possible.
The school board didn’t always agree with Bishop’s decisions on health mandates. For example, in December 2021, she told families masks would become optional after winter break. The school board extended the mandate instead.
“But I could go to sleep every night, even when I made people upset, knowing that the decision I was making wasn’t because of [me], but because I know it’ll be better for kids,” she said.
She said the student graduation speeches she heard gave her hope.
“They had an outlook of being joyous and having gratitude for what they have, so that kind of changed my mindset,” she said.
Bishop also oversaw the district during the 2018 earthquake, the closure of two schools and the redesign of King Tech High School.
Literacy has been a priority for her throughout, and she plans to continue helping districts improve their reading scores. For her, that means a renewed focus on phonics, or studying the way individual letters and syllables sound, similar to the way kids learn foreign languages.
“In any other language that we try to learn, you need the vocabulary, but you also need to know the sounds of the letters in Spanish or the sounds of the letters in Japanese,” she said. “Then you put those sounds together and you form words.”
She said increasing reading scores in Anchorage might require some structural changes, too, like lengthening the school day or school year.
Next, she plans to work with other districts on improving reading outcomes. She said districts in and out of Alaska have reached out to her about consulting opportunities.
One thing Bishop feels optimistic about for the Anchorage School District is teacher recruitment. She said the strategy has changed during her time as superintendent. Instead of recruiting teachers from out of state and convincing them to come to Alaska, the district is investing in “grow your own” programs. They include giving financial support to teachers aides, secretaries and Alaska Middle College students planning to pursue education careers in the district.
“It isn’t more money into the system,” she said. “It’s smarter use of the funds we already have to recruit people.”
Over the last six years, Bishop has watched school policies and school board member elections become more and more political. As students and staff continue to recover from learning loss during the pandemic, she hopes the district can focus on skills like reading and math.
“Our mission is about young people, and they don’t get the vote,” she said. “Whatever I think personally, or wherever any board member sits personally, I think our mission is about children and their outcomes. And that’s what I think we should be talking about.”
As she heads into a new chapter, she hopes the Anchorage School District — and others in Alaska — can keep improving those outcomes.